#KeepKidsReading – Book review #2 “Carrie’s War” by Nina Bawden

It’s my #KeepKidsReading week, which means I get to write about some wonderful children’s literature. On Wednesday I posted about a new author, Benjamin Dean, and his first novel, published last year, called Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow. Today, it’s time for something altogether different, one of the classics of children’s fiction, Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden. First published in 1974, the author drew on her experiences as an evacuee during the Second World War when she was sent to Wales.

The book opens with the central character, Carrie, returning to Wales where she and her brother Nick were evacuated during the war. She was twelve and he was ten years old at the time. Carrie, now widowed, has brought her four children to the small town, and tells them about her time there, about Mr Evans, the parsimonious shopkeeper, and his sister, Aunty Lou, with whom Carrie and Nick were sent to live. Carrie’s friend Albert was sent to the manor house outside of town called Druid’s Bottom, which was owned by Mr and Miss Evans’s sister, the elderly and poorly Mrs Gotobed, who has been estranged from her siblings since she married ‘up’ many years previously.

Carrie and Nick visit Albert and find Druid’s Bottom a much more inviting place than their own accommodation. Mrs Gotobed’s housekeeper is Hepzibah Green, who also cares for Mister Johnny, a simpleton who has limited language and intellectual skills, but a high level of intuition and empathy. Hepzibah tells the children all sorts of stories about Druid’s Bottom, including the legend of the skull of the slave boy. Apparently, when he died, the slave put a spell on the house, that if his skull ever left it, disaster would strike the estate and all those living there. Mr Evans believes Hepzibah to be a witch who is only after his sister’s money.

When Mrs Gotobed dies, Mr Evans, as her only living male relative, will inherit the property and intends to turn out Hepzibah and Mister Johnny. Albert believes the old lady would not have wanted this and that she must have left a will to that effect. When none is found, Albert tells Carrie he believes Mr Evans stole and destroyed it, just to keep his sister’s old housekeeper from living there.

Carrie and Nick are called back to live with their mother, who has moved to Glasgow where she is an ambulance driver. On their last night at Druid’s Bottom, Carrie tosses the slave boy’s skull into the horse pond, wishing ill upon the house, which now belongs to Mr Evans, as she is so angry with him. As the children leave on the train the next morning, they pass the old house, only to see it in flames. She had not expected the spell the be enacted so fast. Carrie has believed her whole life that she is responsible for the fire and that all the residents (Albert, Hepzibah and Mister Johnny) must have perished. She is so sure of her guilt that she never bothers to find out what actually happened.

Early one morning on their visit to Wales, Carrie’s children walk to Druid’s Bottom before their mother wakes up. The house remains derelict, but they find the now very old Hepzibah and Mister Johnny living happily in a converted barn in the grounds. Hepzibah recounts what really happened in the years since Carrie and Nick left and it was not at all like Carrie feared. She laughs at their hints that she is some sort of witch, as their mother had believed (in the nicest possible sense), giving rational explanations for all the seemingly mysterious occurrences, but the ending of the book is ambiguous on this point. It’s fascinating that modern books for children rarely leave this element of doubt, this unanswered question. Are today’s children really less tolerant of ambiguity?

Like Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow this is a ‘middle-grade’ book, and the central character is twelve years old. But, as you would expect from a book written almost fifty years ago, there is a kind of innocence that today’s children may find off-putting. The language and the structure are fairly simple and the setting not too difficult to imagine, so this book would probably suit the 8–10 year-old modern reader. Its themes are perhaps more complex than you might expect though, and it is multi-layered. On the one hand, a younger child could make a very simple reading – there is history of a certain aspect of the war they will be familiar with (I think my son read this in primary school as part of their learning about the war), there are some superficially obvious goodies and baddies, and the story is straightforward. For a more sophisticated reader, however, there is a more nuanced interpretation of the characters – about what underlies Mr Evans’s sadness and therefore his behaviour and attitudes as an adult, about the power of legends, and about the experiences of relatively young children thrust into situations beyond their control which were sometimes frightening.

Nina Bawden’s first novel was actually an adult crime novel, but she then turned her hand to children’s fiction and was hugely successful. Carrie’s War was her third book for children and arguably her best-known. Her other books include The Peppermint Pig and The Robbers.

She was awarded a CBE in 1995 and died in 2012.

This book deserves a place on every child’s bookshelf.

#KeepKidsReading – Book review #1 “Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow” by Benjamin Dean

When you are seeking out appropriate titles for your children and young people it can be quite tricky to select books which pitch at the right level for each individual. The term ‘middle grade fiction’ tends to refer to books for the age group 8-12 years, which means that the vocabulary, themes, subject matter and points of interest are appropriate to most children in that range. It won’t suit all, however; some children may be earlier or later developers and find the books too easy or hard for them at that age. A six or seven year old stronger reader may find some of the content or themes too mature, or likewise a weaker reader in secondary school may find the content too childish. It’s not easy. You can read bookblogging sites (like this one!) or visit others who specialise in children’s books. One of my favourites is librarygirlandbookboy. Subscribe to Caboodle or readinggroups.org for ideas, events and competitions, or ask the advice of booksellers and librarians who will be only too happy to make recommendations. Honestly, it doesn’t matter what your child reads, magazines count too, anything they enjoy, just keep them reading.

Benjamin Dean is getting a lot of attention in the children’s fiction world at the moment. Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow was his debut novel, published just last year, and his follow-up, The Secret Sunshine Project was published in March. His third novel The King is Dead is due for publication this July – busy chap! Ben, as he apparently likes to be called, is a LGBTQ+ writer of colour and his stories touch on these themes, but, let me stress, not exclusively.

Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow tells the story twelve year old Archie Albright whose parents have recently separated. They are both trying hard to maintain a good relationship with their son, but Archie overhears the constant arguments and it is clear that something in their relationship went suddenly and badly wrong, though Archie is not sure what. As an adult reader it was heartbreaking (and should be sobering) when narrator Archie describes his feelings about his parents’ break-up and how when they think they are doing the right thing by him, it is often all wrong. Over-compensating perhaps.

One day, Archie finds a leaflet that his father accidentally dropped, advertising the London Pride event. Archie gets it into his head that if he were to go along to this he would find out something that will enable him to improve the situation with his parents. He expects to find some sort of pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. With the help of his two best friends, geeky Seb and feisty Bell, they make a plan to travel secretly to London to the Pride event (they would never get permission to go if they asked). On the train they bump into Archie’s (gay) babysitter Oscar and his friend Dean, who at first want to take them back home, but are persuaded to accompany them.

When they arrive in London, they are completely unprepared for the scale of the event and the volume of people attending. Almost as soon as they leave the station they lose Seb in the crowd and Archie and Bell also become separated from Oscar and Dean. Archie and Bell are then befriended by a couple of drag queens who are taking part in the carnival and who agree to help them find their friends. Horror strikes again when Archie bumps into his father, who is also attending Pride. Naturally, secrets are revealed and the two manage to open up to one another. Archie’s dad came out as gay and this was the reason for the split with his mother, something that they have had difficulty coming to terms with.

Middle-grade fiction always has a happy ending and the group is eventually reunited with the help of the network of performers. The events enable Archie and his parents to move forward to the next stage of their lives with honesty and love.

It’s a really lovely book, emotional at times, but greatly heartwarming. I loved the characters and I think children will be able to identify with Archie and his vulnerabilities. But Archie is the hero in the end because it is he who enables his parents to find a way through their troubles and to be the family they want and need to be. I would not say this is a book for children who are perhaps questioning their sexual orientation, (though it may be helpful if they are), but it is a book that could help children trying to adapt to changing or non-traditional family structures, or who might be experiencing communication difficulties in their relationships at home. It’s also just a great little story for any kid.

Archie is in secondary school so although the content is probably aimed at KS2 (junior school kids), it might also work for younger or less mature secondary school students. A younger reader might benefit from having a parent read it with them as they may not get all the ironic references or the humour.

Look out for more in the future from this author.

#KeepKidsReading week

It’s been quite a big week in my household: my middle child reached 18, so that is now two reared successfully to adulthood! My eldest went off on his biggest solo travel trip to date, to the other side of the world. That’s been a challenge for me. When I was his age I had travelled often and for longer (without a mobile phone!) and I am only now appreciating what my poor parents must have gone through! And my youngest has this week started her GCSE exams (A levels start for my newly adult daughter next week). It is particularly stressful this year – in the UK it will be the first formal exams sat by students since 2019, the year before the pandemic. This has put enormous pressure on kids and teachers alike and I feel for all of them. If any of you have young people taking exams this summer, I wish them all the best of luck. And if there are any teachers reading this – THANK YOU, you have done an amazing job.

So blogging has taken something of a back seat for the last week or so. But with so much focus on young people it does feel like a good moment for another #KeepKidsReading week. I’ve read a few fantastic books for younger readers in the last couple of months and would love to share them with you. Throughout this week I’ll be reviewing Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow by Benjamin Dean, Heartstopper by Alice Oseman, and the classic Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden. So, do look out for my posts if you’re interested in any of those.

As I look at my daughters preparing to sit their exams, I feel blessed to have such great kids. I also realise how lucky they are to have parents who are reasonably well-read and have the time, resources and inclination to have exposed them to books from a young age. Not all kids are so fortunate.

And I am just a tad proud of myself too, for not giving up in the lean years when it looked like they were turning away from books. It is at this point that many parents just don’t know what to do to maintain their child’s interest in books. Keep the faith, they will come back to it. My 21 year old son, who in his teens once declared to me (to my horror!) that he hated books, now makes recommendations to me! Truly, I’m not being smug at all, just showing that they can come back from the brink with books if you just keep chipping away.

When I read some of my kids’ work, their essays, even revision notes, I feel absolutely convinced that the breadth of their vocabulary, their spelling skills and their ability to express themselves come from their having read widely and consistently throughout their young lives. I also know that for all of them, at this point in their lives, reading is a release from the tyranny of revision, it’s the thing they do to switch their brains off at night and help them get to sleep. It can be such a powerful stress-reliever in a world where they are under an obscene amount of pressure.

So, I hope you will find my reviews this week interesting. If you know a young person, there is no greater gift than the gift of reading so think about a book token for their birthday.

#KeepKidsReading – books out for children

In the last week I have shared a couple of book reviews of children’s books I have read recently. To close off this little series of #KeepKidsReading posts I would like to share some of the children’s books that are either out now or just about to come out and which I really like the look of. Capitalise now on all that ‘World Book Day’ enthusiasm!

Middle-grade books (primary school age/early secondary school)

Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow and The Secret Sunshine Project by Benjamin Dean

The first of these two books sits on my current TBR pile. It’s Benjamin Dean’s debut novel and is the story of Archie Albright who decides to try and ‘fix’ his family and restore their lives to normal after his parents split up. Archie’s father has come out and Archie must learn to come to terms with the ‘new normal’. Looks like a great one for children of same-sex parents, blended families, or separating families. Look out for a future review.

Benjamin Dean does not shy away from challenging themes in his second novel either, it would seem. In The Secret Sunshine Project he deals with the loss of a parent, resilience, sisterly love and the joy of Pride.

The Last Bear and The Lost Whale by Hannah Gold

Another double recommendation, this time two books which deal with important themes of the connection between humans and nature and climate change. The Last Bear was a huge success and widely acclaimed. April’s father is a scientist and his research takes the family to a remote Arctic island where it is said polar bears are now extinct. April comes across one however, starving and desperate, and she is determined to save him.

In The Lost Whale Rio goes on a quest to find a whale he has met on whale-watching trips with his best friend Marina and her father. He has been sent to live with his grandmother in California while his mother recuperates from illness. The children discover the whale but are then distressed when it goes missing. Rio will learn much about his life and the world in his search for the whale.

All of the above titles have wonderful illustrations which I think remain important for this age group.

The Swallow’s Flight by Hilary McKay

Finally, a sadly very topical suggestion. This is a story about the second world war written from the perspective of four children, two in England and two in Berlin. They are all contemplating their future as their countries pursue a war that none of them want or fully understand. A few adults could do with reading this as a reminder of what the senselessness of war looks like through the eyes of a young person.

Teens and younger adults

This is a broad category and some titles deal with mature themes that even very good readers may find challenging so choose your books with care.

You’re Not the Boss of Me by Catherine Wilkins

This title made me laugh as it is an exclamation that one of my children directed at me once! This book may help young teens navigate the thorny topic of sexism. Amy is all set to the be the star of the school show until Harry is put in charge and seems determined to stand in her way. Amy’s sister tells her Harry is being a sexist and she must take a stand. Written with humour by a popular comedian.

Furthermoor by Darren Simpson

Fantasy for young teens. Twelve year-old Bren finds solace from the challenges of his life, where his sister has died and he is constantly bullied, in the imaginary world of Furthermoor where he feels safe and can control events. When the mysterious Featherly enters this world, Bren is forced to choose between fantasy and reality.

Baby Love by Jacqueline Wilson

Another characteristically bold fictional outing from national treasure Jacqueline Wilson. This time she deals with first love and teenage pregnancy in the 1960s when Laura, finding herself pregnant and alone, is sent away to spare her family’s shame.

Blood to Poison by Mary Watson

This looks like a complex and powerful novel. Set in South Africa, its central character is seventeen year-old Savannah who has been identified as a ‘Hella’s girl’, the inheritor of a tradition in her ancient family bloodline where certain young women will die young. This is a story about magic, witchcraft and the courage to defy one’s destiny.

For more suggestions, see the shortlist for this year’s Waterstones Children’s Book Prize.

#KeepKidsReading book review – “Pog” by Pádraig Kenny

Time for my second book review of my #KeepKidsReading week and I would like to tell you about Pog, the second novel from children’s author Pádraig Kenny, published in 2019 by Chicken House. It bears similarities to Kenny’s first novel for children Tin, which I loved, with powerful elements of fantasy, a fight between good and evil, and strong characters which young readers will be able to identify with. 

Pog is the name of a furry talking creature who lives in the attic of an old house in the woods. David and Penny and their father move into the house after the death of the children’s mother in an accident; the house had belonged to her grandparents and she spent a lot of time there as a child. The children’s father has brought them to live there as a way of perhaps reconnecting with the mother they have lost.

Pog seems like quite an ancient creature whose role is as something of a protector, not just of the inhabitants of the house, but as guard of ‘the Necessary’, an access point between the civillised world and the dark underworld, out of which destructive and terrifying forces can emerge. Pog has also known loss and tells of his ‘Grandfa’ who went before him and from whom he seems to have inherited his present responsibilities.

David and Penny discover Pog’s existence soon after moving into the house, and quickly become his friends and allies. It soon becomes apparent that creatures from the underworld are threatening the stability of Penny and David’s world. In one battle that takes place in the sitting room of the house, Pog and the children confront a swarm of ‘bloodworms’ that attack and attempt to destroy them. They win that particular fight.

SPOILER ALERT

This is merely a foretaste of what it is to come, however. In a moment of desperation, David makes a deal with the wicked ‘Kipwik’, who promises that he will be able to see his mother again if he opens the Necessary. This is a lie of course, but David is more grief-stricken than he realised and will do anything. A monumental confrontation follows, a straight fight between good and evil, in which Pog comes close to losing his life. Goodness prevails in the end, however, and in a kind of catharsis both Pog and the children begin the process of coming to terms with loss. They have faced down the cruellest of demons.

I enjoyed the book, although I did not think it was as strong as Kenny’s first novel Tin. The characterisation is good and the action scenes are well-written. The character of Pog is sweet but may turn off some readers who see themselves as too old for talking animals. I don’t think Kenny pulls this off quite as successfully as, say, Philip Pullman. On the other hand, some of the themes (death of a parent, good versus evil) may be too intense for some young readers. I would say this is suitable for the 8-12 age group, with the caveat that they need to be mature enough to deal with the themes, but young enough to embrace the concept of talking creatures.

Pádraig Kenny published a third novel last year, The Monsters of Rookhaven, in which he explores the themes of good versus evil once again. It has been been widely acclaimed and both nominated for and won numerous literary awards.

#KeepKidsReading Book review – “Julia and the Shark” by Kiran Millwood Hargrave with Tom de Freston

Today is the 25th annual World Book Day so it seems a very apt moment to have another #KeepKidsReading week – an occasional series where I post reviews about children’s books. My days of creating World Book Day outfits for my primary school age children are long-gone, though it seems like only five minutes ago, and although at the time it felt like a huge pressure to come up with ideas and then scour charity shops for suitable garments, I genuinely think it is a brilliant concept and any initiative that gives out vouchers for children to get a free book, MUST be a force for good.

I’d like to tell you about Julia and the Shark. This book was heavily promoted in my local branch of Waterstones and I’m afraid I couldn’t resist the ‘Signed Exclusive Edition’ sticker and the attractive design. It is a beautiful thing: hardbacked, the cover is in tasteful shades of grey and bright yellow with shiny silver relief. Inside, the grey/yellow/silver theme continues, as do the illustrations of flying birds which decorate the edges of the pages almost zoetrope style. The images, brilliantly done by Tom de Freston, are stunning and a few of them are on opaque pages scattered throughout the book. In terms of design, the book, in my view, follows a trend set by books like The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse a couple of years ago, or even Quentin Blake’s illustrations for Roald Dahl, where the pictures are an integral part of the experience for the reader and convey something important about character or the state of their mind.

But what of the story? The central character is ten year old Julia, the only child of a mathematician father and a marine biologist mother. The story begins with the family moving from their home in south west England to Shetland, in the very northern isles of Scotland, for the summer. Julia’s father has been commissioned to convert a lighthouse, once operated manually, to an automatic system. The family will live in the building for the duration of the project (a few months) and Julia’s mother will pursue an interest of her own, which is to discover the whereabouts of a rarely seen marine creature, the Greenland shark. She is attempting to get funding for a research project to study the shark and learn about its long, slow life in the hope that it can help in the pursuit of a treatment for degenerative dementia, a condition which killed Julia’s grandmother.

Julia has mixed feelings about the trip; she is unhappy about being away from her friends for the summer, but, buoyed by her mother’s enthusiasm and excitement about her own project, she comes around. Julia and her mother get to know a few people in the local village and Julia makes friends with a boy, Kin, whose family owns the local launderette, out of which they also run a small library. Julia and Kin share a love of nature, she for the sea (a passion passed on by her mother) and he for the stars. Julia quickly becomes initiated into some of the problems that dog Kin’s life, most notably, that he is a victim of racist bullying from some of the local lads.

The Greenland shark can live for hundreds of years – https://www.britannica.com/animal/Greenland-shark

SPOILERS BELOW

Julia becomes increasingly worried about her mother. At first, her mother’s spontaneous and outgoing behaviour is presented as a foil to her father’s logical, sensible character, and it is clear which behaviour Julia prefers! However, the behaviour becomes more and more reckless and bizarre; it starts when Julia’s mother purchases an expensive camera she does not really need and the family can ill afford. It peaks when she buys a run-down boat to go on solo expeditions in search of the shark when it becomes clear that the failure of her funding applications means she can no longer go aboard another working vessel as a paying guest. The boat and the solo expeditions prove both hazardous and fruitless.

Events come to a head when Julia’s mother has a breakdown. The nature of the emergency means that Julia is left in the care of a local shop owner the family has befriended, but she escapes during the night. She learns that there has been a sighting of the Greenland shark and Julia decides she will take her mother’s boat out to search for it. This proves highly dangerous and almost costs Julia her life when she sails into a storm that overturns the boat.

It is very tense at the end because it is not clear if either Julia or her mother will survive. The only indication that Julia does is a paragraph in the opening pages where Julia, who is the book’s narrator, tells us:

“This is the story of the summer I lost my mum, and found a shark older than the trees. Don’t worry though, that doesn’t spoil the ending.”

BIG SPOILER

I was worried when I read this – a book where a young girl loses her mother! But rest assured, the mother does not die. She almost dies when she takes too many pills, and is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but there is a happy resolution and Julia is saved from the waves.

This is quite a challenging book. It does deal with death (Julia’s grandmother’s death is referenced throughout), mental illness, bullying, difficult parents (not just Julia’s but it also turns out that the boy who had been bullying Kin had been abandoned by both his mother and father), and less seismic but equally impactful issues for kids like moving home, being an only child, friendship, and dealing with failure and disappointment.

This is a book that will suit quite a wide range of children between 9 and 13 – younger, stronger readers who are also quite emotionally mature will get a lot out of it, as will older kids who may identify strongly with the issues but perhaps need the pictures to keep them engaged. I loved Julia as the narrator, who was able to present complex issues in easy to understand ways. And it is a very compelling story with elements of adventure too. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It would also be a beautiful book to give as a gift. My only concern with it is that the design has made it quite pricey; at £12.99 this will be out of reach of many parents and children. I hope to see it in libraries.

Highly recommended.

Autumn is officially here

As I write this, the sun is setting for the day and the moon (a waning one now, since it was also a full one just two days ago) will soon be visible. We are at the precise mid-point between the summer and winter solstices when the sun is positioned directly above the equator, giving equal time to darkness and light. In the northern hemisphere, our nights will now start to grow longer, while in the southern hemisphere it is the day that is lengthening as the spring turns into summer.

Not the view from my window! Rather, beautiful photography from Ingo Jakubke on Pixabay

It is an important time of the year in the literary world too; as we begin to spend more time on home-based pursuits we inevitably read more. The shortlist for the Booker Prize was announced last week and a number of literary festivals traditionally take place in the autumn – I am looking forward to the Manchester Literary Festival in October. And like it or not, some of us will be starting to think about Christmas shopping and publishers are competing to attract our attention in the hope that one of their new releases will make it into your shopping basket as the perfect gift. So, it’s a bumper time of year for new books to be published. I posted on here last week about the furore surrounding the publication of Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World Where Are You? It is surely one of the most hotly anticipated books of the year.

But the noise surrounding that book has obscured somewhat the many other big publications of the season. Here are some of those that have caught my eye and which I very much hope to add to my TBR list over the coming weeks.

Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Powers maintains his Booker-nominated streak with his new novel. The Overstory was shortlisted in 2018 and remains one of the best books I have read in recent years. Bewilderment is a good deal shorter but continues with similar themes of the environmental damage wrought by humanity. The main characters are a widowed father and his troubled 9 year-old son seeking connection in the face of global, national and personal tragedy. I can’t wait to read this.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Another author whose last work was one of my absolute favourites of recent years (All the Light We Cannot See, 2015). Doerr’s latest novel is a complex interweaving of five characters and three parallel storylines set in the past (the 15th century siege of Constantinople), the present (during an attack on a public library in Idaho) and the future (a community under threat). They might all be separated by centuries, but the author explores the things that connect them.

The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir

Lost for 75 years, this novel was not published in de Beauvoir’s lifetime as its themes were not considered appropriate. It concerns the friendship between two young girls and how it unravels as they grow up. It is based on a friendship de Beauvoir herself had. The novel’s discovery has caused a frenzy and you can read an extract from The Guardian here.

The Magician by Colm Toibin

I am always wishing I’d read more Toibin, but I never seem to manage it and have only read Brooklyn (after I’d seen the film!). So, I’m determined to read this one as its subject is the great German author Thomas Mann, a favourite from my German A level days.

Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

I watched a discussion between Burkeman and Guardian journalist Zoe Williams a couple of weeks ago about this book. I have enjoyed Burkeman’s columns in The Guardian’s Weekend magazine for some years and like his take on life. This is not a traditional book about producitivity, apparently, despite what the title might suggest, it sounds more like an ‘anti-producitivity’ book, encouraging the reader to focus on what is really meaningful in life.

Pax, Journey Home by Sara Pennypacker

I make it my business to read plenty of children’s literature. It helps me reconnect with the sheer joy of reading that I felt as a child. I loved Pax, Pennypacker’s first novel, and this is a follow-up. I am keen to find out what happened to the young fox and his human companion Peter.

And yet more…

There are a number of other books out which readers might like to note: The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman is the second in his Thursday Murder Club series, and looks to be an equally big success. Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty is out – will it continue her run of best sellers, following Big Little Lies and Nine Perfect Strangers? I expect so! And in a similar vein, Paula Hawkins’s A Slow Fire Burning looks set to bring the author more success. I probably would not pick up this kind of novel, but I loved The Girl on the Train so I might give it a go. Michaela Coel is everywhere at the moment, deservedly so after the phenomenal success of her television series I May Destroy You. She is an incredible role model and continues to campaign on the issues the series raised. She has now written Misfits: A pesonal manifesto which promises to be a powerful read. Finally, Pat Barker’s The Women of Troy, the follow-up to her 2019 success The Silence of the Girls. I found that book difficult to get into, but it was critically acclaimed and shortlisted for The Women’s Prize.

So, plenty to get my teeth into there. Not sure how many of these I’ll actually manage, given that my present TBR pile is toppling, but I am ever the optimist!

What are you reading this autumn? Do enjoy this beautiful time of the year, before the winter kicks in.

#KeepKidsReading week – Building your children’s library #2

It was back in the summer that I published my first post in what was intended as an occasional series on building a library of books for your children. Last time I focussed on the 2-5 age group, mainly picture books and mainly classics. This time I am moving on a little to the 4-7 age group, ie Key Stage 1. This is the age when children are just learning to read, but they still value and need to be read to – the phonics and early reading books are much better than they used to be (I loved reading the Oxford Reading Tree Biff, Chip and Kipper books that my kids brought home from school), but they are designed to expose your children to vocabulary, word order and sentence construction – they are tools designed specifically to aid learning; good children’s literature, on the other hand, fosters joy, builds a bond between child and reader and should inspire.

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Image by saralcassidy from Pixabay

There are some good chapter books now for six and seven year olds: precocious readers who benefit from the challenge of something more complex, but still need age-appropriate themes and subject-matter. I would argue, however, that at this age pictures are still vitally important. Pictures help to build vocabulary organically, they give the child something to look at and focus on whilst listening, as they may not be able to read all of the words themselves, and they help the child develop their imaginative skills as they look at the visions created for them by authors and illustrators. For this age group, the quality of the illustration is just as important as the text; can you imagine AA without EH, or Julia without Axel?

So, for those of you looking to build a library for the child or children in your lives, here are my top ten suggestions. The list is (absolutely!) not exhaustive of course, but these ten will provide the foundation for something wonderful. Nearly all of the books below are just one in a series or the same authors have written similar titles that you can add to the collection.

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  1. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter (plus the other 22 books in her classic collection!)
  2. The Mr Men and Little Miss series by Roger Hargreaves
  3. Winnie-the-Pooh by AA Milne
  4. The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss
  5. The Story of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff
  6. Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
  7. Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
  8. Look Inside – Things That Go by Rob Lloyd Jones and Stefano Tognetti
  9. The Snowman by Raymond Briggs
  10. The Jolly Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg

I would love to hear your suggestions of books for this age group, particularly any that you have enjoyed sharing with the little people in your life.

I would love to hear your suggestions of indispensable titles for 4-7 year olds.

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>>>STOP PRESS<<< Teenager goes on reading binge!

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Yes, it’s true – one of my children is currently reading at a rate of about one book per day! They are currently on Easter holidays so that helps, but this started a couple of weeks ago. I thought it would pass, a mere flash in the pan, but so far so good, more and more books are piling up. Instead of walking around with eyes firmly fixed on the phone, she is walking around with her nose in a book. I am even having to suggest she stop reading and turn off the light at a very late hour!

So, how has this magic occurred? Perhaps you would like to know. Don’t get me wrong, she has always been a good reader, but in recent years, as with most young people once they hit the teens, it has tailed off in favour of the mobile phone, social media and TV streaming services, plus of course homework and friends. Sound familiar? Even when she has wanted to read, the motivation to put down the phone and pick up a book has not always been there, and hours are suddenly lost.

I asked her what has brought about this change (I wish I could claim the credit for it!) First of all, we had a grown-up conversation (ie not a parent-child, I’m-telling-you-what-to-do-type conversation) about getting enough sleep and she realised (quietly) that perhaps being on the phone late into the evening was not a good idea. She was also seeing that friends and peers were posting on social media well into the early hours. These are the kids looking exhausted at school, under-performing and experiencing behaviour problems, so she made the connection herself.

Once the phone was off, she had to find something else to do. This coincided with her watching the film of The Book Thief , which she had read and loved a few years ago. Realising how much had been omitted from the film, she went back and re-read the book. This set her off re-reading other books she had enjoyed. Once she’d got through a good few, she decided to get some new titles, and watch some film adaptations as well. And thus, a virtuous circle of reading, re-reading and associated film watching ensued.

I hope it lasts. She seems to be finding genuine pleasure in reading and it seems the more she reads, the more it motivates her to continue. Keen adult readers will no doubt recognise this feeling. It has, I think, also made her realise the pointlessness of much social media activity. She is aware of the potential harms, both the large and the small, and has decided, off her own bat, not to put herself in a scenario that might impact on her in a negative way.

Naturally, I feel very proud, but I assure you I am not smug; much of parenting teenagers involves realising you have less effect than you’d like and just hoping things turn out okay – it’s not for the faint-hearted!  I would like to think that we adopt certain habits at home that are helpful – modelling both reading behavior and limiting our own phone use – but, frankly, who knows?

So, that’s my little bit of domestic wisdom. If there are young people in your life, I hope they too will see the light.

What are your top tips for getting teens reading?

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Keep Kids Reading Week – new books for children

Last week I posted a blog with suggestions for new books out this Spring that have caught my eye. This week, since it’s my Keep Kids Reading week for March, I’m doing the same for the children in your life. I’ve been scouring the publishing magazines, websites and newspapers for the new books that are around. The Easter holidays are coming up and with the best will in the world, and I speak from experience, budgetary and time constraints do not allow parents to fill every waking minute of their kids’ days. You probably wouldn’t want to either, frankly! Letting them have some down time away from their devices, getting lost in the pages of a book is an option. Better still, have some family reading time, model the behaviour you would like from your kids and get some reading down time yourself.

I tend to focus my suggestions on the 9-15 age group as I think this is the trickiest. Under 9s are usually a bit easier to please and you can guide their book access easily by reading with them. You also generally have a bit more control over screen time with this age group! Ages 10-13, I think, present the most challenging period in terms of keeping them reading, so here are my suggestions.

Scavengers by Darren Simpson

Spring 19 kids 2This sounds slightly like an up-to-date Stig of the Dump to me. Central character Landfill lives the life of a wild creature. He has contact only with animals and one other human, Babagoo, who says he has brought him up from a seed. Babagoo wants to protect Landfill from ‘Outside’ and from the unpredictable other humans about whom he paints a fearful picture. Landfill goes along with this until one day he spies a she-wolf giving birth to her cubs. He realises that animals do not come from seeds and wonders what else Babagoo may have lied to him about.

 

 

Spring 19 kids 1Kid Normal and the Shadow Machine by Greg James and Chris Smith

I have mixed feelings about recommending books by celebrities, fearing that more talented authors are being pushed out. I also accept, however, that a famous name may get a child reading a book they might not otherwise have done. At least in this, the third book in the Kid Normal series, the co-author gets equal billing on the front cover. With fun illustrations this might be a good choice for the more reluctant young reader.

 

Spring 19 kids 3Work It Girl: Boss the bestseller list like J K Rowling by Caroline Moss and Sinem Erkas

A non-fiction option with some fantastic female role models for young girls. Lots of inspirational quotes and tips from high achieving women to motivate and encourage young girls to aspire to success. Easy to dip in and out of, again, another one for those who might find a full-length novel is not quite their cup of tea.

 

 

When young people start secondary school they can go off reading. There are so many distractions, homework, friendship issues, devices and hormones going on in their lives that reading, when it’s not as structured as in primary school, often drops off their radars. Keep the faith, they often come back, but you might have to keep putting books under their noses in the meantime. Here are some that have caught my eye for the 12-15 age group.

Spring 19 kids 6Joe Quinn’s Poltergeist by David Almond, illustrated by Dave McKean

There is a growing selection of graphic novels available for this age group, in recognition of the fact that many young people just find pages and pages of text daunting and unappealing. Some also find it difficult to maintain concentration. And, let’s face it, their world is very visual. If that sounds like a young person you know, try them on this. It’s David Almond, so we know it’s quality writing and from what I have seen, the illustrations are vivid and stunning.

Spring 19 kids 5The Quiet at the End of the World by Lauren James

Described as a dystopian love story this one will suit younger teens who are looking for something more mature but are not quite ready for the YA genre yet, which can sometimes be a little too grown-up. A terrible virus has caused global infertility (climate change themes, Handmaid’s Tale-ish). Lowrie and Shen are the youngest people on the planet. They live in a small ageing community in London, living a largely feral life, until they discover a secret which will force them into making a choice between saving or potentially destroying what remains of the human race.

Spring 19 kids 4How Not to Lose It: Mental Health Sorted by Anna Williamson and Sophie Beer

Any bit of support that our young people can get to help them with the challenges of growing up in the 21st century should be grabbed with both hands. Teaching our children to look after their mental as well as their physical health is vital if we are to head off the epidemic of anxiety, stress and depression that seems to be afflicting the younger population, sometimes with devastating consequences. I like the look of this book and it seems to hit just the right note for the 11-14 age group.

 

I hope there is something here which appeals. Let me know how you get on.

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